The problem with Australian sporting codes having effective ‘second tier’ divisions for its major football leagues


Aussies sure love the major footy code leagues; whether it is the AFL, NRL, A-League or Super Rugby – they all draw substantial public interest.

But with Australia having a population of around 26 million with just 14 cities with populations above 100,000, I ask the question can our major football leagues have effective second divisions like other football leagues (mostly soccer) around the world?

My gut feeling is no, not for a long time yet if we are talking about each or any of the major football leagues having two national divisions with a similar number of teams.

There are a number of obstacles that complicate Australia’s ability to have a full-scale second tier in any of its major football codes. Unless a league was wealthy and willing enough to subsidise them in the same way as they do their women’s leagues at the moment.

First, it remains to be seen to what extent Australian fans would go to watch their favourite team play in a second division.

We know that former National Soccer League teams who once attracted an average season crowd of 5,000 plus, such as South Melbourne, Sydney Olympic and Wollongong City Wolves, rarely draw such crowds these days for any match.

We are not England (56 million population) in a small geographical area where its people have an incredible passion for their local soccer team and where even teams in decline can still draw amazing crowd averages.

For example, Derby County and Bolton Wanderers, both former Premier League teams, now in League One (England’s third division) are still averaging crowds above 26,000 and 20,000 during the 2023-24 season (as of 22 February 2024).

Socceroo Cameron Burgess, playing as a centre-back for EFL Championship club Ipswich Town in England (Photo by George Tewkesbury/PA Images via Getty Images)

Australia is not the United States with 100 metropolitan areas with a population of over 500,000, with the potential to have a viable second division in most sports, although America’s major leagues have long preferred conferences where local teams will play each other more than more distant rivals.

For example, the eight divisions of the NFL each have four teams that play six of their 17 games against their three divisional rivals.

A conference system is much more difficult in Australia given that there are very few cities west of Melbourne with a population over 100,000, while Melbourne and/or Sydney dominate the AFL, NRL and A-Leagues in terms of hosting most teams.

Melbourne (and nearby Geelong) has 10 teams of the 18 AFL teams and three of the 12 A-League teams, while Sydney (plus Gosford, Newcastle and Wollongong) hosts 10 of the 17 NRL teams and five A-League teams.

Nevertheless, Australia’s three major football code leagues (not counting Super Rugby with its very small number of teams) could incorporate promotion/relegation by utilising their state structures with a playoff system between the best state and territory teams after each season.

This approach to promotion/relegation would also help revitalise state and territory competitions and give a greater purpose for clubs and fans throughout Australia in a much fairer way than say Football Australia’s introduction of a second tier currently limited to NSW and Victorian clubs, although not yet involved in promotion/relegation.

Of course, there would be problems for each major football code league.

The NRL really only has two states where rugby league is very popular (NSW and Queensland) with many good-class teams in these states being the sole feeder clubs for all NRL teams, while the AFL has its top-class club depth primarily in the four southern states (Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and perhaps Tasmania).

But playoffs between state and territory champions incorporate the importance of domestic competitions and would remove the travel costs of needing to play outside their regions, albeit Queensland has quite a few regional cities that are far apart.

By boosting the importance of state football code competitions, previously historically important teams in all codes will be given their chance to gain experience in top-level competition if they prove good enough.

And regional cities, which may have never had representation in the top tier of major football code leagues would get their rightful chance.

Any team rising to the top tier would move their home games to the best possible nearby facility if they did not have an appropriate stadium, while those relegated would play games at home grounds or other stadiums in line with crowd demand.

For the AFL and NRL, however, seeking to gain and keep in presence in major cities, it remains to be seen whether they could accept the loss of teams like Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Lions to a second division with no other teams left in such cites.

The prospects of a very popular club like Collingwood or Carlton playing in a second division would no doubt be a shock and horror to the AFL most interested in getting more and more revenue rather than ever achieving a fair sporting competition.

Yes, it remains to be seen whether Australia’s major football code leagues would ever commit to promotion/relegation as say the English have long done with regard to all of its major football code leagues (soccer, rugby union and rugby league).

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The idea of promotion regulation should be considered by the major Australian football code leagues and reflect Australia’s unique geographical and demographic circumstances of vast distances and sparse populations beyond the few big cities.

But I cannot see a more realistic way beyond the utilisation of existing state competitions with playoffs between the top teams.

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